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wagons and wains


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The Old English word ‘wain’ and the Dutch word wagen have a common root. They were translated as plaustrum in medieval Latin documents. The lighter, two‐wheeled wain was in common use, even in highland Britain, in the Middle Ages. Thus, the Domesday Book records that the inhabitants of the Peak District manor of Hope paid five wain‐loads of lead as a tribute to their manorial lord. Oxen‐drawn wains were recorded far more commonly than the sturdier, horse‐drawn cart in 16th‐century probate inventories. They were simple vehicles, far less substantial than John Constable's famous Hay Wain (which was the name given to the picture by an art dealer). See Stephen Porter, ‘Farm Transport in Huntingdonshire, 1610–1749’, Journal of Transport History, 3rd ser., 3 (1982), for an analysis of the appearance of wagons on farms, as revealed by the evidence of probate inventories.

John Stow observed that ‘long wagons’ which brought goods and passengers to London from Canterbury, Norwich, Ipswich, Gloucester, etc., began to operate about 1564. This heavy, four‐wheeled vehicle was introduced from the Low Countries. Its use was long confined to southern England. By the middle of the 17th century larger wagons, with a swivelling front axle, had been introduced. Concern was frequently expressed about the way that such wagons ruined the surface of roads. In 1618 the legal draught for wagons was limited to five horses. In 1662 the draught was increased to seven horses or eight oxen, but loads were limited to 30 hundredweight in summer and to 20 hundredweight in winter. In 1696 a further horse was allowed. In 1708 Justices of the Peace were authorized to issue licences allowing greater numbers of horses or oxen to draw vehicles uphill in difficult terrain.

Wagons were used only where the roads were passable and demand for carriage and back‐carriage was substantial. They were preferred to packhorses for conveying heavy and bulky goods over short and middle distances, especially by the London carriers. The coming of turnpike roads allowed the expansion of wagon services to London and major provincial centres. Local newspapers carried advertisements offering quick services by ‘stage‐wagons’ and ‘flying‐wagons’; by 1742, for example, the Derby Flying Wagon set off for London every Wednesday morning and arrived at the capital early on Saturday. See Dorian Gerhold, ‘Packhorses and Wheeled Vehicles in England, 1550–1800’, Journal of Transport History, 3rd ser., 14/1 (1993).

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